The world will never be in short supply of mediocre action films. But whenever a chiseled, shirtless man is shown diving in slow motion simultaneously firing an automatic pistol in each hand, John Woo’s influence on the film world is felt. While Woo’s influence has spawned some awful imitators, his attention to aesthetics and dramatic depictions of excessive violence has made him one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. In spite of not becoming a household name in America, his style is celebrated by the likes of Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and John McTiernen whose seminal American action film Die Hard (1988) is latent with Woo’s stylistic trademarks. Woo is largely responsible for bringing Hong Kong cinema to the attention of the world. A Better Tomorrow (1986), The Killer (1989), and Hard Boiled (1992) have become the core of a cannon of films unofficially known as “Gun-Fu” and have instilled distinct qualities to the action genre.
Woo’s recent film, Red Cliff, is a fantastic example of an artist evolving his already well-honed craft into uncharted territory. Woo has woven his unique brand of action to a film steeped in epic conventions. Red Cliff is based on an actual 3rd century battle that took place at the end of China’s Han Dynasty. Cao Cao was a northern warlord who amassed enough of an army to envision a shot at usurping the crown. Cao was challenged by a group of southern warlords led primarily by Sun Quan and Liu Bei whose armies all totaled numbered only a fraction of Cao’s. Quan and Bei made their stand at Red Cliff, and Woo has masterfully shaped this battle into an epic film worthy of a place among the ranks of iconic epic films. Woo’s portrait of the battle of Red Cliff fills the screen with colossal amounts arrow fire, swordplay and flying spears. The exposition sections of the film focus on Bei (You Yong) and Quan (Chang Chen) and the psychology of battle the two employ in their campaign. Woo inserts tasteful bits of humor in the form of Quan and Bei generally staying a step ahead of Cao (Zhang Fengyi). Woo’s technique is impeccable on all counts and the breathing scenes between battles are compelling for their style as much as for their exposition. A particularly engrossing scene involves Woo crosscutting between the two camps, each in strategy meetings attempting to second-guess the other. The movie stays interesting, and with a two and a half hour running time and a complete lack of Caesarian intrigue, it is quite an accomplishment. Red Cliff works so well because it is a simple story; Cao, the seasoned northern warlord, wants the crown, and a ragtag band of southern warlords are determined to stop him. To project any complicated politics into the story would ruin it. The good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black. You might have a guess at the outcome, but you should not miss the ride. -Billups Allen
Billups Allen's interest in writing began composing lyrics for the band Shoutbus and later for the band Corn on Macabre. Lyrical duties led to writing poetry and short stories. Several of his short stories were published in a book entitled Unfurnished published by Florida’s now defunct Schematics Records. Allen currently lives in Tucson, Arizona where he writes Cramhole comic zine, writes reviews for Razorcake Magazine and the Tucson Citizen and hosts a radio show called The Groove Tomb. www.billupsallen.com